Zen buddhism tells the story of an oxherd who seeks, finds and then tames his ox before returning to the marketplace, having realised his buddha-nature. The stages of this gradual development are drawn in ten pictures, each accompanied by a short verse.
As with many things in Zen, there are various versions of the same story that have grown and changed over the centuries. Some of these start at different points, others end in different ways, but they all attempt to convey the same ideas. The version I prefer was told by Chinese master, Kaku-an in the 12th century and related by D.T. Suzuki in his book, Manual of Zen Buddhism. This is not the only version of Kaku-an's story, however. Others are available with different translations and different pictures. Another version of the same tale is told in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and translated by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.
The version given below is adapted from those two versions, trying to retain some of the language and meaning of both translations.
It seems that Kaku-an adapted the ten-picture story from an earlier Taoist version comprising only eight pictures, reminiscent of the eightfold way. Kaku-an add two more pictures, symbolising the return to the marketplace that so characterises Zen life.
Symbolism, as you might expect, plays a big part in the series. The ox is a bull, which can be interpreted as representing a direct and immediate life-force. The accepted meaning of the story is that the bull represents mind and the oxherd represents the person who, gradually and with great effort, gains control over the bull. This symbolises the zen student's struggle to gain full control over his own mind.
Many artists have drawn ten pictures to go with the verses. Symbolism is strong in most of these pictures as well as the verses. One example of this symbolic dimension is the use of black and white. Elements coloured black, represent a wild, untamed nature, while white elements represent the pure form: the tamed mind. In most versions, for example, the bull starts out black. Once it has been brought under control it is portrayed as pure white. Clouds at the start of the series are black and stormy, become white and then disperse as the story progresses.
Searching for the ox
In the first picture, the oxherd is standing alone with a rope in his hands. He is looking for his ox.
In the wilderness, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the criss-crossing paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the cicadas chirring through the forest at night.
This is a wonderful verse. Like so much in zen, the expression and poetry are more important than the individual words, or any analytic meaning you might think you can find. The verse aims to show that the oxherd has no idea how to know his own mind, let alone bring it under control. Hope of salvation is seen in the last line where the oxherd listens to the voice of the forest.
Finding the footprints
The second picture shows the oxherd looking at some hoofprints in the soft earth next to a stream.
Next to the stream and under the trees, I see traces of the lost.
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces can no more be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.
This shows that the lessons of zen are hidden deep in the Self; deep in the sutras, but the seeker of wisdom must first learn to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Perceiving the ox
In the third image, we catch sight of the ox for the first time. He is a magnificent black beast, trotting through the meadow by the bank of the stream.
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that splendid head, those majestic horns?
Knowing, as we do, that the bull is analogous to the mind, the oxherd catches his first glimpse of the harmony of satori. He realises that sight, smell and touch are all one. That brine is not salt and water, but only brine itself. Not separate things mixed, but one thing of itself. So with the world.
Catching the ox
The fourth image sees our oxherd catching the bull, but the bull remains wild and untamed. He wants to find new pastures and remains stubborn. The oxherd must use his whip to force the bull to submit.
I seize him with all my energy and willpower.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
And he reaches misty unseen mountain pass; he is almost lost again.
In this verse, the strength of will needed to tame the mind become apparent. The bull has every incentive to remain wild and untamed, just as the mind is constantly distracted by worldly things. Only harsh treatment will force the beast to submit to a higher will.
Taming the bull
In the fifth picture, we see the oxherd leading the bull by a rope passed through its nose. The bull is no longer black, but has white stripes on its neck and back.
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
This verse suggests that the struggle to tame the mind becomes easier with time and practice. With practice, the discipline does not have to be so harsh. External temptations and diversions become less attractive and less distracting as the student learns to keep his mind on the task in hand.
Riding the ox home
The sixth picture has the boy riding on the bull's back, playing a pipe and singing a traditional song. The boy is looking upwards and outwards. The bull is pure white.
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening mists.
Beating time and singing a simple tune, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.
The struggle is over. There is no longer any need or desire to think about gain or loss. The boy hums the simple tunes of the woodsman, or sings the songs of village children. The oxherd has found his path and will remain true to it, undistracted by calls or opportunities that may seem to come his way.
The Bull transcended.
In the seventh picture, the bull has once more disappeared. This time because the symbolism of the ox is no longer needed. The sun shines brightly on the oxherd, as he takes his rest after returning to his old house.
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
In earlier, Taoist versions of this story, this is the penultimate image, showing the awakened mind at one with the universe, revealing how peace comes after a long struggle.
Bull and man transcended
This picture shows only a closed circle. No ox; no oxherd. Only serenity prevails.
Whip, rope, person, and bull -- all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the ancient masters.
Echoing the footprints of the bull in an earlier image, we realise that the traces of the old zen masters exist within this image, which is not an image. It represents completion and perfection and also the ongoing journey. This picture is holiness and not-holiness, mind and not-mind. The enlightened one hurries where there is no buddha, but does not linger where the buddha is present.
Reaching the source
The ninth image shows nature in its natural state. The river is flowing, the trees are in blossom and the birds are singing.
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without --
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
This is one of the most difficult verses in the sequence. I see it as the oxherd now living a natural life, not worrying or caring about what will happen next, but just living spontaneously as the birds live and the fish live, unworried by concerns about reality or meaning.
Return to the marketplace
The final image is my favourite among them all. It shows the oxherd as a fat old buddha, meeting the people of his former village, going about his daily life as if nothing in the world had changed. Except that now, as the enlightened soul he bestows bliss on them all, even though they do not recognise him as one of their own.
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.